Monday, February 11, 2019

Dark

Spoiler-free!

When Jonas Kahnwald returns to school in the quiet town of Widen, Germany on November the 4th, 2019, all his schoolmates think he spent the last two months in France, but that isn't true. Really, he spent the time in a psychiatric hospital trying to recover from the trauma of his father hanging himself in the attic that August. All he missed was a local boy, Erik, going missing -- oh, and his best friend Bartosz is now dating the girl he likes, Martha. Things don't seem to be looking up, but at least they know where Erik kept his drug stash -- out by Widen Caves. A group of them go out there after dark, and some strange sounds and a wild sprint back to safety later, another of their number is missing. This time, Martha's younger brother Mikkel.

A German-language Netflix show, directed by Baran bo Odar, co-created with Jantje Friese.

What follows for the next nine episodes is a breathtaking downward spiral of ever-increasing complexity and interweaving madness that will leave your head spinning. There are so many elements going on in this show that I can't possibly hope to cover all of them. I'll stay away from plot for no spoilers, and unfortunately can't talk much about the characters either for the same reason -- plus there are just plain too many of them. Nearly 20 could easily count as main characters, and they all have their motivations, secrets, and conflicts with each other. At the center is always Jonas (Louis Hofmann), but even he doesn't appear in two of the ten episodes, so wide is this show's scope. Ulrich Nielsen (Oliver Masucci), Mikkel's father and a detective looking for the missing kids, is the only person in all ten.

So, it's down to quality, technique, tone, and vibe then -- and I could talk about the latter two all day, but let's start at the top. I'm not sure how big a production this was in Germany, but it was either impressively big or incredibly efficient with what it had, because it comes across as massive. It opts for practical effects over digital whenever possible, and invests strongly in what it has. The casting director (Simone Bär) deserves a medal; you rarely see such obvious care put into the amassing of a cast, let alone one this big and this capable. And the score caught my notice by being so strange and mood-setting with odd percussion sounds, and weird airy hoots and screeches. Then the soundtrack is occasionally obscure and always to die for.

Some German, some English, some 80's classics, and some strange to amazing modern stuff.

Writing is clearly exceptional. I am amazed at how masterfully this complex plot was doled out for a steady build of wonderment. Every reveal has maximum impact. And I have to say I loved hearing the German language spoken by normal people. More often I hear it in WWII pics where it's made to sound as harsh as possible, but here it's so laid back and beautiful. Rich, with an edge, just like the show itself. Though I'm sure at least a little is lost in translation, the lines are smart but not showy, and nicely cryptic, forgoing blatant exposition, so many connections in the plot are made in reverse, which is a remarkably satisfying thing to accomplish.

The scifi elements are presented with such realism, and the character's reactions to them are the perfect level of confusion and acceptance that things never come too easily, but no one's annoyingly obtuse in understanding either. Objectively the show is paced slowly, but as you watch it, it feels relentless, like if you don't keep up, you'll be left behind. No serving things up on a platter here; we must dive in with the characters to discover and piece things together. Nicely, the show does give us the required information to solve a mystery before the character does, and this slow accumulation of clues helps. The first time I watched it, I was on the verge of being lost the whole time, and the mental challenge it presented was thrilling.

Even just keeping track of who is in who's family was a fun challenge!

One of my favorite things this show does is probably at least partially meant to provide a break from the mental strain, and it is that in the 3/4 mark of every episode (or nearly every) the plot will pause, and the soundtrack will gear up to a thousand and play a moody piece of licensed music while the show casually checks in on its characters -- usually not doing anything particular except being moody. The show does have consistent style throughout, but it's these moments that really leave an impact as to how incredibly beautiful this show gets. It lays it on thick, and without an ounce irony; and it's mesmerizing. This show doesn't hold back, doesn't apologize, and doesn't need to. It's fascinating, and richly decadent.

My other favorite thing is how well the characters are handled. We get to know them all deeply, and whether our knowledge leads to love or hate for them, it's always done with subtlety -- with sympathy for the bad ones and flaws for the good. I found it wonderfully satisfying to harbor hate for one particular character, but it doesn't lack in villains. And I naturally invested with Jonas' story most, but there's no lack of lovable, sympathetic, and fascinating characters either. Character arcs are a strange thing, and often are completed out of order, so that the journey is only perfectly clear in retrospect. Theme is remarkable, and remarkably well done: I almost wish I could explain, but even with spoilers I'm not sure I could do it justice. It seems to go deeper than I could find the words or the time to describe. Suffice to say, it left an impact.

"What we know is a drop; what we don't, an ocean."

Dark is streaming on Netflix. I recommend it as a science fiction mystery and drama; bleak, but determined to entertain with every moment. Comparable to Stranger Things, but with less pop-culture and comedy, and for more mature audiences. Its relaxed pace and dark tone won't be for everyone, nor its complex puzzle of characters and rare mature content; but another season is on its way, so now's the time to catch up if it at all appeals to your sensibilities. For me, I'm excited to see where these characters will lead us next -- with new interweaving mysteries, a fresh bounty of mind-blowing twists, that sweet, sweet mood-setting soundtrack, and patent German style -- eager to discover what the future holds for this magnificent treasure of a show.

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